It’s not often that the fates of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon neatly intertwine. They have spent most of the Covid crisis on no-speaks, to the credit of neither. But the crisis that has swept Scotland at the mishandling of school-leaving grades and a model that has led to the schools in poorer areas being at the sharp end of statistical adjustments is galloping south at top speed.
On Thursday England’s A-level results come out, also based on estimates after exams were cancelled. Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will find themselves caught up in the same maelstrom. Groundhog Day will repeat next week when GCSE results come out.
Having seen two offspring through the exam donkey derby and with another a year away from GCSEs, I feel for all involved.
The centrality of exams in both systems means that when blunders happen over papers being wrongly set or anomalies in marking emerging, the stakes are very high indeed. Now add the justified worry of parents and pupils in 2020 that the pandemic will disrupt their journey into higher education or stymie their chances in a job market which will be precarious.
The Government urgently needs to heed the warnings from the way that the exam regulator’s statistical model and school rankings have led to a penitent U-turn by Sturgeon and a commitment to upgrade the down-grades. Both nations’ approaches to replacing exams this year have similar drivers and comparable flaws.
The main one is that they did not level with the public about the difficulty of creating a “fair” system to assess performance in systems geared to the useful brutality of exam grades.
The trade-off between a qualifications set-up intended to mimic exam outcomes, just without the test-sitting bit, has come unstuck. A statistical review will most likely find that in a sizable number of cases, it has produced inequitable results.
Alas, it is proving hard to understand the elliptical pronouncements of Williamson. The intention is often right, but the imprecision is alarming.
I say this as someone who had education as a large part of my brief as a policy editor, with the additional spur of trying to persuade a heat-wilting 15-year-old to engage with the finer points of Shakespeare and simultaneous equations, rather than offer Advanced Netflix as a specialist subject.
Seeing as both the Government and Ofqual seem to have vacated the role of public communication on the matter, I would recommend, if you are bemused, confused, worried or all three, to read the Higher Education Policy Institute’s clear-eyed explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of the “emergency” grading model this year in a paper entitled What Students and Parents Need to Know. It is a shocker.
Neither the regulator nor the Government levelled with exam-stressed families that schools would effectively have to rank pupils for a limited number of grades at each level.
The HEPI is clear in the implication: “These are not the grades this year’s students deserve, they are the grades which the Ofqual model says the school deserves on the basis of past students’ achievements.”
Teenagers realise it’s all a bit of a swizz that results have more to do with their school’s record than their own work
Teenagers are not fools — when it becomes clear that the result they receive had more to do with their school’s record than their own exertions, they will draw the conclusion that this is all a bit of a swizz or at least unreliable enough to distrust.
The oddest part of all this is that in a year when many of those taking GCSEs and A-levels are justified in fretting that the system will fail them, the scope for appeals was limited to schools making requests rather than individual pupils. Given the storm that is about to break, this will not withstand the ire of parents claiming that a slew of results have been calculated on questionable criteria.
Yes, appeals clog up the system and they are sometimes a vanity exercise, rather than justified grievance. But we cannot create a system of overall fairness out of individual unfairnesses. Individual appeals will need to be restored.
God help the poor university admissions officers contending with this jumble when they make their offer of places or deferrals, but a credentialing system, even in such trying times, cannot afford to forfeit a basic claim to even-handedness.
Next year, we hope, matters will be different. Yet we are still in the dark as to how Johnson’s focus on the return of schools is to work in practice.
Talking to civil servants involved in planning for a feared rise in the infection rate in September, two main points emerge. One is that we are going to have to get used to living with degrees of risk until the pandemic wanes. So the “no-schoolers” are wrong to demand such an onerous list of safety checks that the routine of education, even with distancing measures, becomes impossible.
They neglect the vital trade-offs which we need to get through the rest of the virus with the least harm to our social fabric, in which education plays a huge part. The rising generation will inherit so many of its burdens (to say nothing of paying the pensions of their former teachers and long-suffering parents).
The other consideration is that the Government is now united about avoiding another sweeping lockdown. One senior health official confides that “September anxiety is deepening” about a likely rise in the rate of infection after the easing of the summer.
It is possible that some of the new liberties we are enjoying will have to be sporadically curtailed, to allow schools leeway to reconvene.
The results meltdown in this fevered August is a brutal reminder of why the calculated risk on a phased return to classrooms as soon as possible is still the right choice, from a menu of invidious options.
It’s a hard sell to announce that resuming early mornings and swotting for exams are something to look forward to. But to do right by Gen Z, there’s no better way through this unqualified muddle.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist